Autism: An Ethical Stake for Our Time
Mario Goldenberg

Author’s Bio

Analytic training is never-ending. Every meeting is a training space. In the Lacanian orientation, there is no standard training: it is not a matter of so many hours of analysis or so many hours of supervision. What opens up a future for psychoanalysis is the possibility of facing the problem of doing justice to the subjectivity of our time.
What does doing justice to our time consist of? In some cases, preferring Internet to books, for instance.

What does doing justice to our time with regard to autism involve? The most recent trend, for the last 20 years, has been to regard autism as a neurological disorder with a genetic cause. The real of hard science that forecludes the subject. There are clinics and therapies based on this. This is something we are facing.

How can we face this conception of hypermodern science?
I would like to mention two references:
The first one is the case of the South Korean student Cho Seung-Hui at Virginia Tech:
a reference taken from a book by Spanish journalist Juan Gómez-Jurado called The Virginia Tech Massacre (El Anden, Barcelona, 2007), which is a sort of detailed timeline of what happened in the Blacksburg campus. This massacre caused a hole in hypermodernity, in the discourse that characterizes the current security system.

Cho was a disturbed twenty-three year old, and some of his relatives mentioned that he had been diagnosed as autistic in childhood. He would never greet anyone, not even his roommates. He had aggressively pestered some girls. One of them was one of the first to be murdered. Cho had a tutor, the teacher Lucinda Roy, who, taking into account his background, gave him normativizing advice.

It should be borne in mind that Cho had had a psychiatric episode a few years before. However, he had an arms license—the arms with which he committed the massacre were legally bought.

The tutor says that Cho would not greet anyone, and greeting people is something very important in the US normativizing discourse. The tutor would advise him to greet people, teaching him to say Hello, How are you? The student said that he would try to do so sometimes.

The massacre started around 7am with the murder of two students. Then Cho mailed to NBC a video with his photos and manifesto, which can be found on YouTube. At around 9am he received a university warning on his BlackBerry, saying that there had been murders in a building, and that the police was surrounding the campus. Five minutes later, he walked into the classrooms and killed the other thirty students. The very security device triggered the massacre. The tutor said, crying, that the first thing that you can see in the video when Cho walks into the classrooms to kill the others is that he greeted them saying: Hello, How are you? Her normativizing achievement.

It is interesting to find a similar modality in the case of Wellington Menezes de Rio and other cases. They generally make a statement, a sort of manifesto explaining why they did what they did, and they are all subjects for whom bonds are rather disturbed, they manage to establish bonds like this. What is worrying about Virginia Tech, I believe, is that it was the security device itself that pushed him. The episode was triggered by the idea that he had to greet people—which might seem to be nonsense—or by his receiving the alert.

As regards types of intervention, this is a good example of normativization in the clinic. I would like to contrast this recent case with a classic case described by Melanie Klein. In his first seminar, Lacan mentions Melanie Klein’s 1930 paper “The importance of symbol-formation in the development of the ego,” which describes a four-year old boy who was at the level of a 15 to 18 month old due to the poverty of his vocabulary and his intellectual development. There was absolutely no adaptation to reality and no emotional ties to his environment: the child received no affection and was indifferent to the absence of his mother or nurse. From the start, he had rarely displayed anxiety; he generally uttered unintelligible sounds and constantly repeated certain noises. When he talked, he used his scarce vocabulary incorrectly, but not only was he unable to make himself understood, he didn’t wish to do so. Moreover, the mother perceived in Dick a strongly negative attitude, which was expressed in that he frequently did precisely the opposite of what was expected of him: if the mother managed to make him repeat some words with her, Dick would often completely modify them, although at other times he could perfectly pronounce the same words.

Regarding his background, Melanie Klein says that his lactation period had been exceptionally unsatisfactory and disturbed, as his mother had insisted for several weeks in trying to breastfeed him with no success, and the child had almost starved to death. Then the child was artificially fed and was able to feed better thanks to a nurse: he had digestive disorders, anal prolapse, hemorrhoids, etc.

The mother’s attitude towards him had been one of excessive anxiety from the start.
Then came the meeting with Melanie Klein, which is something interesting in an analyst’s training. I remember that Elsa del Valle, an APA Kleinian analyst, would say that she had worked with autistic patients for many years, and she was very surprised by Dick’s response, which was quite unusual. As described by Melanie Klein and Lacan, Dick’s indifference towards Melanie Klein was similar to being with a piece of furniture. Melanie Klein points out that, unlike neurotic children, there is no anxiety in the presence of another. Melanie Klein operated through something which Dick knew—the train, the words “train,” “station.” She introduced what Lacan called the Oedipal veneer by means of the random fact that Dick was playing with his train and said “station.” As Lacan describes it, Melanie Klein plugged it in brutally: Dick is the train and enters the station which is Mommy (she had previously said that Daddy was the big train and Dick was the little train).

Going beyond Melanie Klein’s idea of the Oedipal

Melanie Klein talks about inhibition in the development of the ego. Something has been arrested. And this modality of Dick’s, an indifferent negativist, indicates that something has been arrested. What she brings about is the precise opposite of normativization: she causes Dick to become anxious to begin with—you will remember the dark place—and then she introduces the call. Beyond Elsa del Valle’s narration, the call appears almost immediately in treatment—it was something which did not exist in Dick’s universe: there were words but there was no calling the Other.

I would like to mention two references from “The Topic of the Imaginary” in Seminar I and articulate this with Eric Laurent’s two recent lectures on autism. The three orders—the Imaginary, the Real, and the Symbolic—already appear in early Lacan, but they are not linked. He uses a topological term, and when he tackles the question of the call, the fact that Dick doesn’t call for anyone initially, he says the following: “But this child already has a sufficient system of language. The proof lies in the fact that he plays with it. He even uses it to make an attempt at opposing adult attempts at intrusion.” I find the way in which Lacan locates this defensive system very interesting. What Melanie Klein calls an “inhibition” is an opposition to attempts at intrusion: for example, Dick behaves in a way which is described as “negativist” in the text.

You should remember that the word which Lacan uses when he talks about Melanie Klein and her intervention is “plugging in”—she “brutally grafts,” creates a symbolization veneer in something which is dislocated—and what is dislocated, according to Lacan, is the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary, just as the optical schema of the flower vase in Seminar I is dislocated. There is a relationship with the real and with reality which is interesting for us.

What I wanted to mention is that this rejection of intrusion leads Melanie Klein to perform an operation which, we might say, enlarges a border, for something happens—as Lacan says, something is triggered. Talking about Dick, he says “there is no unconscious of any kind in the subject: it is Melanie Klein’s discourse that brutally grafts the first symbolizations into the child’s initial egoic inertia.” Thus, Melanie Klein’s intervention—which, I insist, is neither normativizing nor pedagogical—grafts—as Lacan says, “brutally grafts”—something in place of the intrusion.

Finally, I would take up a couple of issues, one from a lecture by Miller which can be found on the AMP blog, entitled “Reading a Symptom,” which was the closing lecture for the New Lacanian School conference, and the call to the new conference, which will be held in Tel Aviv.

It is very interesting because Miller follows two aspects: the aspect of sense, the deciphering of the symptom, where interpretation and the analytic operation concern sense, on the one hand; and on the other hand, a different modality, I would say, a moment beyond Freud that is “knowing how to read.” And I believe that, beyond all that with which Melanie Klein deluded herself, her entire theory of objects, phantasy, and primary sadism, etc.—which are all debatable questions—beyond her belief that she is grafting the Oedipal myth, there is a reading effect in what she does. Because what is interesting about these cases is that it is not sense that is at stake: for there is no demand for sense, but rather these are beings who have a relationship with language but they are outside sense, and what Melanie Klein produced was fledgling access to sense.

Finally, I would like to mention a paper from a Catalan colleague, Neus Carbonell entitled: “Autism and Genetics: Belief-Based Medicine” which concludes: “However, the statement that autism has a genetic cause persists and insists, unruffled, and so I think that we can conclude that it is a ‘solid’ belief. A belief, however, with consequences, as it forecludes the subject. For psychoanalysis, considering autism as being in relation to an unfathomable decision of the being entails also thinking about a treatment for the subject. All that remains of the other treatment is the correction or reeducation of alleged anomalies.”

The above has been adapted from a Lecture in the Fundación Avenir Conference – Autism and Psychosis in Childhood – on August 6th 2011 in Córdoba, Argentina.

Mario Goldenberg: psychoanalyst, AME of EOL andAMP, lecturer at UBA and UB, teacher at ICDEBA and IOM. Editor of the digital journal Consecuencias. www.revconsecuencias.com.ar


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